One Liner Review:
There might be an epic feel here, to a scenic throwback western film, but the story is certainly kind of dull and the action leaves something to be desired.
This is the kind of revenge story that we’ve seen many times before. In this case, it doesn’t start out as a revenge stituation, but more of a bounty hunters for hire. Only this deal is considered betrayal and undermining of the sheriff, which makes any one who accepts it into an enemy of the town. All of that seems like it would make for an exciting plot, and it should, except that this movie drags its feet with getting the main characters into the town. While the Sheriff’s story is entertaining, especially in a subplot where he makes an example out of a man who rides into town, named English Bob, the story of our protagonist Will, moves at a snails pace and is barely exciting at all.
Unforgiven was an important movie in American cinema. Now, that’s not to say that it’s a good movie, but just that it meant something for the time when it was released, and had an impact that went past the movie itself. For one thing, this was a western film that came at a time when the western was being embraced by the public again, for the first time in ages. There are two movies that brought the western / frontier flick back into the limelight, and both were Oscar winners that became instant classics. The first was Dances With Wolves, two years prior to this. Unforgiven was the second one. But that wasn’t the only reason why it such a significant film. Another was that this movie was the single film that brought back an acting icon, Clint Eastwood. By brought back, what I mean is that Eastwood hadn’t made anything memorable in years and had all but fallen off the radar. At the time of Unforgiven, the actor’s last movies were a film called The Rookie, (which starred him and Charlie Sheen,) a movie called White Hunter Black Heart, (which most people have never even heard of,) and then a film called Pink Cadillac. Each of these felt more and more like Eastwood was becoming a B list former film star.
And then Unforgiven hit, and it was the man who was Mr. Western himself, (ever since John Wayne gave up that unofficial title,) back to doing what he did best. Eastwood, ofcourse, was the star of the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, and Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Western trilogy, movies that many considered to be among the best westerns of all time. And now, Eastwood was not only back to make interesting films, with epic sweeping scope, but westerns, the genre where he had been so successful in the past. And these are the reasons why Unforgiven was embraced so whole-heartedly despite it not really being an especially good film. To say that there are better westerns is an understatement. Leone’s own Once Upon A Time In The West, for example, blows this movie out of the water. But Unforgiven just hit at the exact right time and featured the exact right actor, making his comeback.
The movie is certainly beautiful and artistic on a grand scale, but what it lacks in are the things that really matter. The storyline and the characters. What we have here is a story that is not very far off from othr revenge films we’ve seen just like it. The movie has all the usual cliches, including a cowboy who was a legend in the past, and an evil and corrupt sheriff who runs the town. All of these elements are staples of the genre, and they generally tend to add to the film, placing it right there alongside other movies that feature these elements, and letting them make the movie feel like it belongs. The only problem is that there is very little clever or unique about this film, and that it is anti-climactic on a number of occasions.
The film opens at a brothel inside of the small town. It’s a bar on the first floor and then bedrooms upstairs where the local girls turn tricks for the bar owner, a man named Skinny. On the outside of the brothel, signs say billiards, and we come to learn that the billiards table was burned for firewood years ago. Now adays, if you come into the brothel and asked for a game of billiards, that word is actually a code which means you want an appointment with one of the girls. We see one of these appointments taking place in a bedroom and then hear some shouting and lots of noise coming from the next bedroom over. It turns out there are two cowboys who rode into town and one of them is very upset with the girl he was just with. He is so upset, in fact, that he beats her and cuts her face.
That leads to the sheriff, Little Bill (Gene Hackman,) being called in to exact justice. He ties the two men up, calls for his bulwhip, and is about to give them some lashings when something changes his mind. Little Bill has another idea. Instead of punishing these men physically, he will just require them to leave town and bring back a number of horses which will go to Skinny. The horses will be to compensate for the financial loss that Skinny will now have to deal with since no man will want to get with the girl whose face has been cut. In other words, the girls are being treated as property, and brining back a number of horses seems to be equal punishment for what these men have done. At least according to Little Bill, anyway. The refusal to use the bull whip on those boys, when the movie established that Little Bill was about to do just that, is the first example of how the movie features anticlimactic scenes. You expect something big to happen, and something small happens instead. It’s the kind of thing that makes you say, “that’s it?” Just the same way that the woman who is the leader of the prostitutes, Strawberry Alice (on account of her red hair,) says in disbelief over what Little Bill deems to be fair punishment.
The anger that the girls face over having one of their own mistreated so badly and not getting any fair consequences, despite the culprits being caught by the sheriff, prompts them to take action on their own. The girls decide to pool their money together and hire some assassins. Whoever will take the job of executing those two cowboys will be given a large sum of money as a reward. The girls start telling every cowboy who rides into town about this, and word gets back to the Sheriff. Little Bill isn’t happy. He wants their proposal stopped. This movie could have used a scene explaining that. Why does Little Bill care if the girls want to hire someone to kill people who are not even of this town? There are inferences that can be made, like that this action of the girls is actually undermining the punishment that Little Bill declared for the cowboys, but even still, a scene to show us Little Bill’s point of view on the matter would have been nice.
This leads us to Bill Muny, (Clint Eastwood,) a man who, the opening screen titles tell us, was once an outlaw who then married an innocent and kind woman who set him straight. She married him despite the protests of her mother, and died of illness some years later. This story, or at least the mother’s role in it, is never mentioned during the course of the film, and yet it is presented to us in the screen titles at both the start and end of the movie. Strange since we never meet or hear about the mother, and it seems like it’s part of a whole other movie. Bill Muny, the man we hear these stories about, is simply an older pig farmer living out in the countryside, when we meet him. He’s falling into the mud while chasing hogs around the pen, and trying his best to raise two small children while the three of them live together, out in seclusion. Our introduction to Muny is not very exciting.
When a young man who calls himself the Schofield Kid rides in and proposes that Will join him in going to seek that reward money, Will turns the offer down. Then the man leaves and Will gives it some second thought and decides to go find his former partner, a man named Ned, played by Morgan Freeman. Ned agrees to join him and the two of them go to find the Schofield Kid. Once they do, there is discussion about why Will has brought a third person into the mix, how the money will be split up, and how the Schofield Kid does not have very good vision. He can only see fifty feet. This is all a relatively slow moving story.
Luckily, the things happening in the town are a lot more exciting. There is the story of a man named English Bob, (Richard Harris,) who rides into town hoping to collect that reward money for himself. English Bob is a man who is known out in the west, and is a sort of legend, whether the stories about him are actually true or not. He gets into some hot water with Sheriff Little Bill when he brings guns into town, and the conflict between them is actually the best conflict in the movie. There’s even a great scene leading up to the capture of English Bob, where Little Bill’s men are getting ready and all kinds of humorous discussions are going on. One man wants to discuss whether its better to die in the hot or in the cold. Another wants to talk about how bad of a carpenter Little Bill is, and still another wants to know if the reason why Little Bill is not there with them is because he is afraid. Between the takedown scene of English Bob, and then a prison cell scene that happens with him later on, this little subplot is absolutely the most interesting part of the movie. That’s in large part because it is the storyline where Gene Hackman really gets to shine in all of his villainous ways.
When the English Bob story is over and we are back to that of Will and his friends, riding into town together, things go back to being kind of slow and dull. There is one cool thing that happens, which is that Will’s mission goes from being about the girls to being about taking on the sheriff, and that changes when Little Bill makes things personal. But other than that, this is pretty much the usual storyline, just told at a slower pace. On top of that, when we do get action, it is far from anything great. When Will shows up for the climactic showdown at the end, there is no reasonable explanation for how he could possibly survive against a roomful of armed men. And the movie doesn’t even try to give us one. Besides the slow moving plot, the fact that Will is the most lifeless character of the bunch , certainly doesn’t help. Hackman is good as the sheriff, but he was even better playing this pretty much exact same role in the Sam Raimi film The Quick and The Dead (an intentionally campy B movie that happens to be a lot of fun,) just a few years later. The English Bob storyline is interesting, except that it is over way too quickly. And that leaves us with the dull story of Will. Clint Eastwood started getting better movies after this one (In The Line of Fire, A Perfect World,) and Unforgiven is certainly to thank for that, but as a movie unto itself, it is a pretty average film. Somewhat entertaining and beautiful, but far from original or exciting.